Woolfenden brings his brand of mischief from Paddy Power to Lyst

Paddy Power's former mischief-maker Christian Woolfenden is up to his old tricks trying to make fashion's invisible giant famous.

 After a short break, Christian Woolfenden is back making mischief.

Woolfenden, chief marketing officer at fashion ecommerce platform Lyst, made his name at Paddy Power with a series of cheeky ads and eye-catching stunts.

So when Lyst appeared to be selling puppies as fashion accessories last week, a few observers were quick to make the link between the activity and Woolfenden’s past exploits.

"Early on, people were saying: ‘Christian Woolfenden started there in January – it smells of a hoax,’" he laughs.

Still, the ruse had the desired effect and got people talking about the brand (see sidebar), which has a low-to-no profile.

Despite its near invisibility, the chances are that if you’ve shopped for fashion via Google, you’ve bought through Lyst.

An idiot’s guide to Lyst

The stats behind the business – the world’s biggest online fashion retailer – are mind-boggling. The platform, which was founded by Chris Morton, Devin Hunt and Sebastjan Trepca, attracts 40 million shoppers annually from 180 countries. Consumers can use the site to access three million products from 11,557 designers and stores. Lyst, which was launched six years ago, has grown 300% year on year for the past four years.

Providing an idiot’s guide to Lyst, Woolfenden explains: "We bring people in sideways through Google, they click on a product and we take them off to Net-a-Porter or wherever, drop a cookie and get paid on whatever they buy. So people never really experience Lyst – they drop in and come out. We’re an aggregator."

Until recently, there was no need for Lyst to have a brand but this changed last year when the platform introduced a universal basket, which enables users to shop at different places but pay for everything at the same time.

This development, Woolfenden says, meant that Lyst needed to have a brand because it became more important for people to stay on the site and shop – so he was drafted in to "make Lyst famous". He adds: "It’s a great opportunity for me because it’s a blank piece of paper."

Since his arrival, Woolfenden has been trying to get under the skin of what sort of a brand Lyst could be and how it should communicate. He has engaged Adam Morgan’s outfit Eat Big Fish (which also worked on Campaign’s relaunch) to do positioning work and has signed an innovative deal with the creative shop Anomaly. 

50% of Lyst’s 150 staff are data scientists and engineers

Eschewing the fees model, Anomaly has instead gone down the collabo-ration path and taken a stake in the business. Woolfenden says: "If we hit the targets, then everybody is happy.

If we don’t, then they don’t get their equity. Instead of them trying to sell you stuff, they’re saying ‘No, we don’t think you should do this’ or ‘This will work better in New York’. We like Anomaly because they don’t count themselves as an advertising agency."

The account will be run primarily from Anomaly’s New York offices because 70% of Lyst’s business comes from the US and an American campaign is planned for July. Woolfenden is hoping to tap Anomaly’s contacts to get "mates’ rates and favours" but is sure that quality will not be compromised in the pursuit of free or cut-price services.

He’s enjoying getting back to the nitty-gritty of marketing, conducting "smoke tests" to find out what works for Lyst. "Is it about influencers, is it about TV, is it about radio, social or VIP? At the moment, I’ve no idea," Woolfenden explains.

He says he’s not ruling anything out and is open to everything from TV to social to door drops and direct. "There are really good tech-driven businesses out there that get their best volume from door drop," Woolfenden points out.

While the people at the reception of Lyst’s Hoxton Square HQ have the air of fashionistas (Campaign feels awkward in scuffed, comfy Clarks sandals while a woman sashays past in beautiful vertiginous heels), 50% of Lyst’s 150 staff are data scientists and engineers.

100% a tech company

So is Lyst a fashion company or a tech company? Without missing a beat, Woolfenden opts for the latter. "We’re a tech company – we don’t own fashion," he says, though concedes that he is "absolutely dressing better" than he used to. 

"You’re sitting there and someone tells you about some of Mr Porter’s summer stuff and you’re like: let’s have a look. So I don’t bet any more in the way that I used to – I now spend it on shoes. My wife’s getting annoyed – she’s like: ‘There’s not as much room for my shoes on the shoe rack now. How many more brown suede shoes do you actually need?’"

In marketing circles, Woolfenden’s move to Lyst raised eyebrows. Having started out in Procter & Gamble’s finance department, he made the switch to marketing at the FMCG company before moving to Bacardi and then to Paddy Power, where he rose from chief marketing officer to managing director. With his background in numbers, chief executive seemed his obvious next move; once marketers go into general management, it’s unusual for them to take another marketing role.

Explaining his reasoning, Wool-fenden says that, after four years at Paddy Power, he began to yearn for something more entrepreneurial.

He says: "I was introduced to Chris [Morton] last year – I really liked the sound of what they were doing and liked the product and could see the opportunity. After four years at Paddy Power, travelling to Dublin every week was getting quite tiring." 

The sparky Woolfenden appears to fit right into the fast-moving start-up environment. "The speed at which stuff happens is great. When you sit down and do the budget for a year, CEO, CTO and me as the CMO, we get what we need done in two hours. If you were anywhere else, that would be two months."

Reflecting on his next move, Woolfenden does not rule out a return to a major company but says he would go back "far wiser for it".

"People told me I was mad to do this but I think they’re wrong," he says. "It’s unbelievable how much you can learn here."

A campaign with bite

Lyst took to Twitter claiming that it was selling dogs as fashion accessories, linking to its new Canine Collection site, which enabled users to shop for puppies based on breed, cuteness and size.

The move provoked an outcry but, predictably for those aware of Woolfenden’s involvement, it turned out to be a hoax. As well as bringing a bit of brand fame to Lyst, the nobler aim was to raise awareness that the number of "handbag dogs" in need of re-homing had increased 120% over the past five years.

In the 48 hours that the page was live, the campaign increased social traffic to Lyst by 1,600% and direct traffic by 120%. The platform’s Twitter impressions for all of 2015 were 57 million but, for 9-10 May alone, they hit 31 million.

Some 5,000 people clicked to buy a puppy, but Woolfenden believes this was due to curiosity rather than a desire to acquire a new pet on an ecommerce site.

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